Upset-minded Cal enters Pac-12 tournament ready to be “a team that nobody wants to play”

2015-16 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Cal's Kristine Anigwe.
2015-16 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Cal’s Kristine Anigwe.
  • Pac-12 tournament game one: No. 10 Cal vs. No. 7 Utah
  • 11:30 a.m. PT/2:30 p.m. ET, KeyArena (Seattle, Wash.)
  • TV/Streaming: Pac-12 Network/Pac-12 Bay Area/Pac-12 Mountain/
  • Audio: ESPN 700 (Utah)
  • Tournament bracket

It has been five years since Cal (13-16, 4-14 Pac-12) entered the Pac-12 tournament seeded lower than fourth. In head coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s first season, 2011-12, the Bears headed to the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed and advanced to the final before losing to top-seeded Stanford. Even though Cal was the No. 4 seed last season, the team still managed to reach the final, facing and losing to Stanford again.

This season, with an injury-laden roster dominated by freshman and sophomores, the Bears begin tournament play in Seattle battling as the No. 10 seed in the first round against No. 7 Utah (16-13, 8-10 Pac-12).

Playing so early, without a first-round bye, is unfamiliar territory for Gottlieb and her squad. However, the team looks to capitalize on its youth and lessons learned over the past few months even after a litany of ups and downs that included the loss of key players to a variety of circumstances.

“We’re excited to go to Seattle, it’s new territory for us, we’ve never played on Thursday before,” said Gottlieb about playing in the first round. “I think our players are embracing this opportunity. It’s been a rough conference (season) for us, but one that has seen our kids stay committed to the process and they understand what’s at stake for us this week. We’re looking forward to getting out there and being a team that nobody wants to play.”

It is not that Cal is without talent. In fact, the Bears have arguably the best freshman in the nation, a still-improving Kristine Anigwe. The 6-4 center from Phoenix, led the team this season with 20.3 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per contest. The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year was voted to the league’s all-conference and all-freshman teams by media and coaches. She earned a record eight freshman of the week honors.

Starting freshman point guard Asha Thomas took on a huge role this season, becoming the team’s floor general and also putting up impressive numbers (8.1 points per game, 4.7 assists per contest). She garnered a spot on the league’s all-freshman team as well.

The squad has also seen excellent play from junior guard Courtney Range and flashes of athletic brilliance on both ends of the floor from sophomore forward Mikayla Cowling and Green. Early in the season, with just one game under their belt, the Bears beat then-No. 8 Louisville on the road.

In their last weekend of play, the Bears started off with a win over Oregon but fell two days later to Oregon State, this week’s No. 8 team in the Associated Press poll. In the OSU matchup, the Bears had a chance to pull out a victory when they earned a five-point lead late in the third quarter. While the youngsters did not win, they managed to keep the Pac-12 Player of the Year, senior guard Jamie Weisner, below her season average in scoring and the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, senior center Ruth Hamblin, below her average in rebounding.

“We’ve got to find a way to exploit our youthful energy,” said Gottlieb. “That should be a positive for us, that we’re young, and I mean this in a good way, that we’re clueless. We need to couple that with a little bit more of a veteran focus and that’s what I saw this past weekend, that I think our young players were really able to grasp the game plan and try to carry it out and at the same time we played with great energy. And that’s what we need to do for these four days.”

The hurdle for the Bears is a familiar foe: Utah. The history between Gottlieb and first-year Utes coach Lynne Roberts goes back several years when they were coaches in the Big West, Gottlieb at UC Santa Barbara and Roberts at Pacific (before the Tigers left for the West Coast Conference in 2013).

While Cal leads the overall series between the teams at 11-6, they are 0-2 against the Utes so far this season. In the first loss, a Jan. 10 contest in Berkeley, the Bears had a 49-31 advantage at the half but Utah roared back to score 26 points in the third quarter and 27 in the fourth to take the game 84-79.

At Utah on Feb. 19, Cal had three players in double figures including a 22-point, seven-rebound effort from Anigwe. The Bears were within one point in the last minute but a three-point shot from Utah’s Malia Nawahine cut short Cal’s momentum and Utah raced to a 72-66 victory.

“We’re excited to get a third shot at them because I don’t think anyone in our locker room is happy to have gone 0-2 thus far,” said Gottlieb, “but it’s going to be a big challenge because they score the ball well and they’re disruptive on the defensive end.”

The Utes have had the same starting five for all 29 games this season, a lineup that includes All-Pac 12 team member Emily Potter, a sophomore forward. Roberts exceeded preseason expectations as a newcomer to the conference. The Utes entered the season at No. 11 in the Pac-12 preseason poll. They finished last season 9-21 with just three Pac-12 victories, lost in the first round of the tournament and finished last in the conference. The school fired former coach Anthony Levrets two days after the Pac-12 tournament defeat.

Gottlieb praised the coaching of Roberts and how hard the Utes play.

“I think it was an excellent hire for Utah, she’s brought great energy in there,” said Gottlieb. “I think she’s changed the mentality of that team, made them believe that they can all score, made them believe they can all play at a fast pace.”

While Utah will most likely see postseason action in the WNIT, Cal’s chances at postseason play hinge on their success in the tournament.

“We’re the team with two losses, we have the most to learn from the film and we have to come out and be ready to do something differently obviously because we weren’t successful the first two times.”

The Utah/California winner will face No. 2 seed Arizona State in the second round on Friday, Mar. 4 at 11:30 a.m. PT.

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